Verbal Communication Strategies
Consider your favourite podcaster or podcast series. We love crime podcasts! Despite being reliant on vocal delivery only, the presenters’ voices paint an aesthetic picture as they walk us through stories around crime, murder, and betrayal. So, how do they do it? What keeps millions of people listening to podcasts and returning to their favourite verbal-only speakers? Is it how they say it? Is it the language they choose? All of these are important parts of effective vocal delivery.
Below, we begin discussing vocal delivery—language choices, projection, vocal enunciation, and more.
Language and Aesthetics
It was 5 p.m. As she looked out the smudged window over the Kansas pasture, the wind quickly died down and the rolling clouds turned a slight gray-green. Without warning, a siren blared through the quiet plains as she pulled her hands up to cover her ears. Gasping for breath, she turned toward the basement and flew down the stairs as the swirling clouds charged quickly toward the farm house.
What’s happening in this story? What are you picturing? A treacherous tornado? A devastating storm rumbling onto a small Kansas farm? If so, the language in the story was successful.
Like this example demonstrates, the language that you use can assist audiences in creating a mental picture or image – creating a visualization is a powerful tool as a speaker.
Aesthetics is, certainly, based on how you deliver or embody your speech. But aesthetics also incorporates language choices and storytelling – techniques that craft a meaningful picture and encompass how you deliver the information or idea to your audience. In this section, we will explore vivid language, implementing rhetorical techniques, and storytelling as an aesthetic tool to create resonance with your audience.
Vivid language evokes the senses and is language that arouses the sensations of smelling, tasting, seeing, hearing, and feeling. Think of the word “ripe.” What is “ripe?” Do ripe fruits feel a certain way? Smell a certain way? Taste a certain way? Ripe is a sensory word. Most words just appeal to one sense, like vision. Think of colour. How can you make the word “blue” more sensory? How can you make the word “loud” more sensory? How would you describe the current state of your bedroom or dorm room to leave a sensory impression? How would you describe your favourite meal to leave a sensory impression?
In the opening Kansas storm example above, the author may want the audience to sense danger or a certain intensity around the approaching tornado. To create that audience experience, you must craft language that emphasizes these elements.
When using vivid language, you’re trying to bring those sensations to life in a way that can create a vivid experience for your audience. “How can I best represent this idea?” you might ask or “how can I best create a scenario where the audience feels like they’re a part of the scene?”
Viivd language can take time to craft. As you work through your speech, determine where you’d like the audience to experience a particular sensation, and focus on integrating vivid language.
Remember that pathos is a persuasive appeal that is at your disposal, and using vivid language can assist in creating an emotional experience and sensation for the audience.
There are several traditional techniques that have been used to engage audiences and make ideas more attention-getting and memorable. These are called rhetorical techniques. Although “rhetorical” is associated with persuasive speech, these techniques are also effective with other types of speeches. We suggest using alliteration, parallelism, and rhetorical tropes.
Alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds in a sentence or passage. In his “I Have a Dream Speech,” Dr. Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” Do you notice how the consonant of “C” resounds throughout?
Parallelism is the repetition of sentence structures. It can be useful for stating your main ideas. Which one of these sounds better?
“Give me liberty or I’d rather die.”
“Give me liberty or give me death.”
The second one uses parallelism. Quoting again from JFK’s inaugural address: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” The repetition of the three-word phrases in this sentence (including the word “any” in each) is an example of parallelism.
Tropes are a turning of the text where the literal meaning is changed or altered to provide new insight (Brummett, 2019). This is often referred to as figurative language, or using comparisons with objects, animals, activities, roles, or historical or literary figures. A literal statement would say, “The truck is fast.” Figurative says, “The truck is as fast as…“ or “The truck runs like…”
You are likely most familiar with the metaphor – one type of trope. Metaphors are direct comparisons, such as “When he gets behind the wheel of that truck, he is Kyle Busch at Daytona.” Here are some more examples of metaphors:
Love is a battlefield.
Upon hearing the charges, the accused clammed up and refused to speak without a lawyer.
Every year a new crop of activists is born.
Note: while tropes, metaphors and similes can be useful tools, remember that neurodiverse members in your audience, or people who are not familiar with the Canadian context, may have trouble understanding you.
Similes are closely related to metaphors, and use “like” or “as” when crafting a comparison. “The truck runs like,” is the beginning of a simile.
Tropes are useful because they assist the audience in seeing an idea in a new way or a new light. This can be particularly helpful if you’re struggling to create a vivid experience but have been unsuccessful at evoking the senses. A metaphor can assist by comparing your argument with an idea that the audience is familiar with. If you’re trying to evoke a particular felt sense, make sure the compared idea can conjure up that particular feeling.
Whatever trope you use, the goal is to craft an interesting comparison or turn the text in a unique way that leads to great comprehension for the audience.
Stories and storytelling, in the form of anecdotes and narrative illustrations, are a powerful tool as a public speaker. For better or worse, audiences are likely to remember anecdotes and narratives long after a speech’s statistics are forgotten. Human beings love stories and will often will walk away from a speech moved by or remembering a powerful story or example.
So, what makes a good story?
As an art form, storytelling may include:
- Attention to sequence, or the order of the story;
- Embedding a dramatic quality (or using pathos);
- The use of imagery (or figurative language).
While there is no “one-model-fits-all” view of storytelling, we often know a good story when we hear one, and they are a helpful way to expand your argument and place it in a context.
If you have personal experience with an argument or advocacy that you select, it may be helpful to provide a short story for the audience that provides insight into what you know. Remember that anecdotes are a form of evidence, and we can feel more connected with an idea if the story is related to something a speaker has been through. For example, if you selected police brutality as a speech advocacy, embedding a story about police violence may support your thesis statement and allow your audience to visualize what that might be like. It may draw them in to see a perspective that they hadn’t considered.
Similarly, consider the placement of your story. While your speech may rely on a longer narrative form as an organizational pattern, it’s more likely that you’ll integrate a short story within your speech. We most commonly recommend stories as:
- The attention getter
- Evidence within a main point
- A way to wrap up the speech and leave the audience with something meaningful to consider.
Stories, rhetorical techniques, and vivid language are important mechanisms to evoke language with aesthetics. In addition to what you say, verbal delivery also includes how you say it, including: vocal projection, verbal enunciation and punctuation, and vocal rate.
You may have experienced a situation where an audience notified a speaker that they couldn’t be heard. “Louder!” Here, the audience is letting the speaker know to increase their volume, or the relative softness or loudness of one’s voice. In this example, the speaker needed to more fully project their vocals to fit the speaking-event space by increasing their volume. In a more formal setting, however, an audience may be skeptical to give such candid feedback, so it is your job to prepare.
Projection is a strategy to vocally fill the space; thus, the space dictates which vocal elements need to be adapted because every person in the room should comfortably experience your vocal range. If you speak too softly (too little volume or not projecting), your audience will struggle to hear and understand and may give up trying to listen. If you speak with too much volume, your audience may feel that you are yelling at them, or at least feel uncomfortable with you shouting. The volume you use should fit the size of the audience and the room.
Vocal Enunciation and Punctuation
Vocal enunciation is often reduced to pronouncing words correctly, but enunciation also describes the expression of words and language.
Have you ever spoken to a friend who replied, “Stop that! You’re mumbling.” If so, they’re signaling to you that they aren’t able to understand your message. You may have pronounced the words correctly but had indistinct enunciation of the words, leading to reduced comprehension.
One technique to increase enunciation occurs during speech rehearsal, and it’s known as the “dash” strategy: e-nun-ci-ate e-ve–ry syll–a–bal in your pre-sen-ta-tion.
The dashes signify distinct vocal enunciation to create emphasis and expression. However, don’t go overboard! The dash strategy is an exaggerated exercise, but it can lead to a choppy vocal delivery.
Instead, use the dash strategy to find areas where difficult and longer words need more punctuated emphasis and, through rehearsal, organically integrate those areas of emphasis into your presentational persona.
Verbal punctuation is the process of imagining the words as they’re written to insert purposeful, punctuated pauses to conclude key thoughts. Your speech is not a run-on sentence. Verbal punctuation allows decisiveness and avoids audiences wondering, “is this still the same sentence?”
Verbal punctuation is a strategy to minimize vocalized fillers, including common fillers of “like, and, so, uh.” Rather than use a filler to fill a vocal void in the speech, punctuate the end of the sentence through a decisive pause (like a period in writing!).
We know what you’re thinking: “there’s no way that reducing fillers is this easy.” You’re partially right. We all use vocalized fillers, particularly in informal conversation, but the more you rehearse purposeful punctuation and decisive endings to your well-crafted thoughts and arguments, the fewer filler words you will use.
It is also helpful to ask for input and feedback from friends, colleagues, or teachers. “What are my filler words?” We have listed common fillers, but you may unconsciously rely on different words. One author, for example, was never aware that they used “kind of” until a colleague pointed the filler out. Once you’re aware of your filler words, work to carefully, consciously, and meticulously try to catch yourself when you say it. “Consciously” is key here, because you need to bring an awareness about your fillers to the forefront of your brain.
Pace and Rate
How quickly or slowly you say the words of your speech is the rate. A slower rate may communicate to the audience that you do not fully know the speech. “Where is this going?” they may wonder. It might also be slightly boring if the audience is processing information faster than it’s being presented.
By contrast, speaking too fast can be overly taxing on an audience’s ability to keep up with and digest what you are saying. It sometimes helps to imagine that your speech is a jog that you and your friends (the audience) are taking together. You (as the speaker) are setting the pace based on how quickly you speak. If you start sprinting, it may be too difficult for your audience to keep up and they may give up halfway through. Most people who speak very quickly know they speak quickly, and if that applies to you, just be sure to practice slowing down and writing yourself delivery cues in your notes to maintain a more comfortable rate.
You will want to maintain a good, deliberate rate at the beginning of your speech because your audience will be getting used to your voice. We have all called a business where the person answering the phone mumbles the name of the business in a rushed way. We aren’t sure if we called the right number. Since the introduction is designed to get the audience’s attention and interest in your speech, you will want to focus on clear vocal rate here.
You might also consider varying the rate depending on the type of information being communicated. While you’ll want to be careful going too slow consistently, slowing your rate for a difficult piece of supporting material may be helpful. Similarly, quickening your rate in certainly segments can communicate an urgency.
And although awkward, watching yourself give a speech via recording (or web cam) is a great way to gauge your natural rate and pace.
The common misconception for public speaking students is that pausing during your speech is bad, but pausing (similar to and closely aligned with punctuation) can increase both the tone and comprehension of your argument. This is especially true if you are making a particularly important point or wanting a statement to have powerful impact: you will want to give the audience a moment to digest what you have said. You may also be providing new or technical information to an audience that needs additional time to absorb what you’re saying.
For example, consider the following statement: “Because of issues like pollution and overpopulation, in 50 years the earth’s natural resources will be so depleted that it will become difficult for most people to obtain enough food to survive.” Following a statement like this, you want to give your audience a brief moment to fully consider what you are saying. Remember that your speech is often ephemeral: meaning the audience only experiences the speech once and in real time (unlike reading where an audience can go back).
Use audience nonverbal cues and feedback (and provide them as an audience member) to determine if additional pauses may be necessary for audience comprehension. Audiences are generally reactive and will use facial expressions and body language to communicate if they are listening, if they are confused, angry, or supportive.
Of course, there is such a thing as pausing too much, both in terms of frequency and length. Someone who pauses too often may appear unprepared. Someone who pauses too long (more than a few seconds) runs the risk of the audience feeling uncomfortable or, even worse, becoming distracted or letting their attention wander.
Pauses should be controlled to maintain attention of the audience and to create additional areas of emphasis.